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When I went into space, art and philosophy came with me

To help nurture critical thinking skills and encourage unexpected innovation, we need STEAM education that teaches the humanities along with science
Eytan Stibbe in video session for kids from the ISS

The priorities of students and schools in Israel have been transforming over the past few years, with a dramatic rise in the number of students studying STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. There has been a parallel drop in the popularity of humanities subjects, including literature, history, and the arts. This change has been a little less marked with female students, with only 29 percent of learners in STEM subjects being girls – however, this too is changing.

The broad trend is no surprise. With parents, and schools themselves, developing a more career-focused mindset, and with Israel increasingly aiming to play a role in the global marketplace, the desire to study these more technical and scientific subjects reflects the labor market. As someone with a background in investment, aeronautics, and space travel, I can understand these motivations all too well. Yet, it is important to include subjects such as philosophy and liberal arts in the equation to ensure that Israeli students are well-equipped with a well-rounded education. Creativity and social conscience are vital skills for developing a future generation with a fully formed skillset, not just to face the Israeli employment ecosystem but indeed for our wider community in general.

The Importance of STEAM

‘STEAM’ was proposed by Georgette Yakman in 2006, as a way to contextualize subject matter and inspire cross-analytical learning. Although the acronym was formed by simply adding ‘A’, for arts, the philosophy behind it goes much deeper than that. The educational discipline aims to encourage teachers to use project-based learning, bringing all the different subject areas together in their classes. In this sense, learning better reflects the real world, which is not separated into subject-specific ‘silos’.

The inclusion of liberal arts naturally recognizes the importance of culture to society, but beyond that, it also fosters the development of skills around human interaction and sensitivity. According to research by CIE Day School Specialist, Dr. Tal Grinfas-David, in her report Israel Integration Into STEAM, an arts education can help students to manage ethical concerns, understand nuance and ambiguity, and recognize bias – a perspective I fully stand behind and support.

Besides these holistic benefits, there are specific measurable outcomes from STEAM learning. By blurring the boundaries between, for example, art and science, students are encouraged to utilize both their left and right brain simultaneously – a true cognitive workout. Indeed, in terms of student performance, research has demonstrated that a holistic approach to education generates improved cognitive ability.

There are also positive consequences for the world of work – for example, future engineers will have confidence in drawing, while artists and architects will be able to understand computer-aided design. Another good example of this can be seen in the work of Yael Swerdlow, founder of Maestro Games. Its signature product, ‘The Last Maestro,’ utilizes music combined with virtual reality technology to strengthen resilience in first responders, military, and healthcare personnel. As an alternative, non-pharmaceutical therapy, it has been used to help combat mental health challenges including PTSD and depression.

STEAM in Israel

Israel is still catching up with the many benefits of STEAM programs, but there are many people and institutions doing excellent work in this sphere. For example, Hani Galitsky, the director of the Education and Guidance Division at Madatech (the Israel National Museum of Science, Technology and Space), is passionate about promoting STEAM learning. Galitsky works in the context of minority populations, especially Eastern European immigrants who are newly arrived in Israel.

Then there is Michal Ivgi, who works with Jewish Haredi communities. Ivgi’s daughter was enrolled in a Haredi school, but when she wanted to study sciences and technology, she was astonished to discover the school did not provide these programs. That was when Ivgi made the decision to implement STEAM learning throughout Haredi schools across Israel. That led her to join the Ramon Foundation’s contest for experiments that will take place in the International Space Station. As a result of Ivgi’s determination, I spoke with primary school children on the topic of “Lighting Candles – traditions in Space” as part of the educational videos we created.

Rakia – Inspiring Young Minds

When the Rakia Mission docked at the International Space Station in April 2022, I was the first Israeli to ever step aboard. It was a historic moment for me, and for Israel, as we brought with us the wherewithal to conduct 34 experiments on behalf of Israeli scientists and entrepreneurs while ensuring the importance of art, culture and education were represented and at the forefront of our minds throughout the mission. In fact one of the most crucial aspects of the mission was its vast capacity to inspire the inquisitiveness of the younger generation – a central tenet of Rakia is that “curiosity is the wellspring of knowledge”.  For the first time, Israeli students and children had a direct link to the International Space Station.

Rakia’s education program has stories, experiments, and lesson plans to help teachers and fire up the imagination of kids from preschool right through to high school. For the youngest students, there is a range of short stories about space, gravity, and the history of humanity’s exploration of space. Older students can learn about radiation, how the human body reacts in zero gravity, and even how scientists have been growing steaks on the way to Mars!

Eytan Stibbe in the ISS – photo: NASA

The Future of Education

There is often a perception that the pursuit of STEM subjects alone for students of all ages and genders is critical if today’s children are going to meet the demand of tomorrow’s job market. However, I would argue the importance of incorporating the liberal arts, philosophy and language, is vital in their education to help nurture critical thinking skills and encourage unexpected innovation.

The Rakia mission aims to inspire the imagination of a new generation of young minds. I hope that teachers will be able to use stories of this historic project to encourage every Israeli child to dream big and aim for the stars.

About the Author
Impact investor, philanthropist and pilot, Eytan Stibbe was the second Israeli astronaut to ever go to space. As a crew member of the Ax-1 mission, in April 2022, Eytan spent 17 days on the International Space Station. Together with the Ramon foundation and the Israeli Space Agency, a work plan was assembled and called the RAKIA mission. It included experiments in medicine, earth observation, production in space as well as educational programs and art, all under the banner “There is no dream beyond reach”.
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